After a Natural Disaster: A Guide for Parents
Kathleen A. Olson, Extension Educator — Family Resiliency
Reviewed May 2013 by the author. Revised July 2015 by Ellie McCann, Extension Educator — Family Resiliency.
Natural disasters can leave children feeling frightened, confused, and insecure. Whether a child has personally experienced trauma or has merely seen the event on television or heard it discussed by adults, it's important for parents to be informed and ready to help if reactions to stress emerge.
How Children React
Children respond to trauma in many different ways. Some may have experienced reactions very soon after the event; others may seem to be doing fine for weeks or months, then start to show worrisome behavior. Knowing the signs that are common at different ages can help parents and others who work with children recognize problems and respond appropriately.
Children from one to five years old may find it hard to adjust to change and loss. In addition, they have not yet developed their own coping skills, so they must depend on parents and family members to help them through difficult times.
Very young children may regress to an earlier behavioral stage after a traumatic event. For example, preschoolers may resume thumb-sucking or bedwetting or may become afraid of strangers, animals, darkness, or "monsters." They may cling to a parent or become very attached to a place where they feel safe.
Changes in eating and sleeping habits are common, as are unexplainable aches and pains. Other symptoms to watch for are misbehavior, hyperactivity, speech difficulties, and aggressive or withdrawn behavior. Preschoolers may tell exaggerated stories about the traumatic event or may speak of it over and over.
Children aged five to eleven may have some of the same reactions as younger ones. In addition, they may experience the following:
- Experience an increase aggression or hyperactivity
- Fear going to school
- Find it hard to concentrate
- Suffer from physical aches
- Experience sleep disturbances
Like children of all ages, teens will also look to trusted adults for cues in how to react during a disaster. They will also look to these same adults for where to get their news on what is happening, important information about the event, and what their role in the community can be.
Watch for feelings of sadness so that you as an adult can determine if the teen in your care is sad or depressed. Loss is an emotion that needs to be expressed. Help your teen by giving him or her time and space to talk about it.
What You Can Do
Reassurance is the key to helping children through a traumatic time. Very young children need a lot of cuddling, as well as verbal support. Answer questions about the disaster honestly, but don't dwell on frightening details or allow the subject to dominate family time indefinitely. Encourage children of all ages to express emotions through talking, drawing, or painting and to find a way to help others who were affected by the disaster.
Try to maintain a normal household routine and encourage children to participate in physical activity. Reduce your expectations temporarily about performance in school or at home, perhaps by substituting less demanding responsibilities for normal chores.
Finally, acknowledge that you, too, may have reactions associated with the natural disaster, and take steps to promote your own physical and emotional healing. See Trying to Understand and Cope With Disasters for tips.
Baggerly, J. & Exum, H. A. (2008). Counseling children after natural disasters: Guidance for family therapists. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 36(1), 79-93.
Lazarus, P. J., Jimerson, S. R., & Brock, S. E. (2003). Helping Children After a Natural Disaster: Information for Parents and Teachers. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.
Mental Health America. (n.d.). Helping Children Cope with Tragedy Related Anxiety.
Zero to Three: National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families. (2014). Coping After a Natural Disaster.
It's Important to Talk with Children About Natural Disasters — Make time to ask questions and listen; be available.
After a natural disaster: Coping with loss — The five stages of grieving.